Tuesday 12 December 2017

Three Reasons for Barca's Return to Summit

Bayern Munich v FC Barcelona - Neymar celebrates with Luis Suarez after scoring the first goal for Barcelona UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg (Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach)
Bayern Munich v FC Barcelona - Neymar celebrates with Luis Suarez after scoring the first goal for Barcelona UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg (Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach)

Jonathan Wilson

Messi 2.0 - Just when some thought Messi might have passed his peak, one of the game's greatest ever scorers has also become Barcelona's leading playmaker to help Neymar and Luis Suarez form an unstoppable strike force.

The Argentina star bounced back from last season's double disappointments - Barcelona finishing without a major title and his national team losing the World Cup final - by taking over from Xavi Hernandez as Barcelona's most incisive passer.

Time and again this season, Messi unlocked defenses by dropping back into midfield to set up his teammates.

He assisted in 17 league goals, while still finding time to score 41 of his own in the league and 13 more in other competitions.

Fittingly enough, his goal at Atletico Madrid last night for the 1-0 win clinched the title.

In a four-day span last November, the 27-year-old superstar broke Telmo Zarra's Spanish league record of 251 goals and Raul Gonzalez's Champions League milestone of 71 goals.

All told, Messi is well on his way to reclaiming the Ballon d'Or award from Cristiano Ronaldo.

DEADLY VERSATILITY

This Barcelona side don't just play beautiful football - they have gone for the jugular like rarely before.

Luis Enrique, in his first year as coach, has emphasised effectiveness in attack over the club's traditional focus on keeping possession.

The result is a more versatile attack than the ball-control style established by Pep Guardiola, which had become predictable under successors Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino.

The arrival of Suarez, along with an improved Neymar, gave Enrique the perfect strike partners for Messi, and the trio have exploded for a combined 115 goals overall this season.

Their 79 league goals are more than the total managed by every other team in La Liga apart from Madrid.

On top of this, Dani Alves has had his best season in years and Ivan Rakitic has become a key midfield hustler, while Andres Iniesta is the team's on-pitch leader with Xavi Hernandez on the bench.

Barcelona have even become dangerous from set-pieces with centre-back Gerard Pique also playing his best in several seasons and new signing Jeremy Mathieu scoring two important goals from corner kicks in back-to-back wins against Madrid and Celta Vigo in the final stretch of the season.

SECOND HALF

If there is one date that stands out this season, it is January 4 when Barcelona's 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad in the first game after the winter break threatened to provoke a club meltdown.

The defeat, coming after Barcelona failed to appeal FIFA's one-year transfer ban for violating rules on youth player transfers, led to the firing of sports director Andoni Zubizarreta.

But amid reports that Messi was unhappy with the coach, the team came together and responded with a superb second half of the season.

Barcelona eliminated Atletico Madrid from the Copa del Rey, beat Madrid to cement their hold on the league lead, and bettered Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League final.

During that stretch, Enrique also managed to prevent his squad from being distracted by a tax-fraud case connected to the signing of Neymar.

Enrique can now match Guardiola's three titles during his first season at Barcelona with a win over Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on May 30, before playing Juventus in the Champions League final on June 6 in Berlin.

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